Merriam-Webster's Latest Additions: Plus a Primer on the Singular "They"
As things seem to be taking a turn for the positive in 2021, from the rates of vaccination against Covid-19 on the rise in the United States to the general sense of optimism that comes from looking forward to seasons this year where more of us will be able to openly socialize, it is only fitting that the top priority of Merriam-Webster is to capture the moment through language. In their most recent update, January of this year, Merriam-Webster announced that there have been over five hundred total additional words and updated words to their dictionary. Below is a sample of the latest:
During the ‘before times,’ one did not worry as actively about pathogens. We sanitized regularly, but not constantly; we touched purchasable items just to consider their weight, shape, and texture. Now (meaning, as things are during the pandemic,) in the West, we imply negative things about marketplaces
carrying objects without a prepackaged exterior, as they seem dirty and hypothetically unsafe. This phrase is a potential dog whistle, a loaded word that alerts those with xenophobic prejudices while benign on the surface. One day, we’ll have access to this concept more readily again, and ideally, those fears will be dispelled as silly. Merriam-Webster defines a wet market as “a market that sells perishable items (such as fresh meat and produce) and sometimes live animals which are often slaughtered on-site.” If you’ve been to a supermarket with a butcher or deli where meats were left unpackaged, one could easily argue you’ve frequented a wet market. The context of this phrase gives it its power and should be seen for its inherent neutrality and the connotations that fearful people can place upon it.
This year more than ever, Americans have been online, turning to social media platforms for entertainment, comfort, and conversation. One way, for years, that people have been communicating online that only recently received its place in the dictionary is through the reaction image. A reaction GIF, according to Merriam-Webster, is “a GIF [graphical image file] of someone or something (such as a celebrity or an animal) that is sent or posted in reply to something (such as a text message or a social media post or comment) and that typically depicts and expresses a reaction.” It’s straightforward as far as definitions, though, but the context of how these images are used is essential. A reaction GIF is a uniquely Internet invention that ought to be cataloged accordingly.
As families struggled to make ends meet and businesses clawed to stay open in some capacity, new ways of raising money have had to be devised. GoFundMe, as a platform, was designed to be a place where people could pool money together to help young entrepreneurs reach investors and make great new inventions. But that action, which applies to more situations than invention, now has an official name in the dictionary. Crowdfunding, according to this update, is “the practice of obtaining needed funding (as for a new business) by soliciting contributions from a large number of people, especially from the online community.”
Crowdfunding now also has a reputation for helping those in
desperate need of charity – awareness of those campaigns has done a lot for the awareness of this concept, and websites that facilitate organizing crowdfunded projects, such as GoFundMe and IndieGoGo.
There’s something really wonderful about using a word that has changed very little from its language of origin in English. Words with traceable roots are indeed the spice of life. That being said, Merriam-Webster added a word that has been buzzing around aesthetic spaces and the Danish language for some time now. The word, a concept, is hygge, “a cozy quality that makes a person feel content and comfortable.” Hygge gets those nearer the arctic circle through their harsh winters, and hygge can apply to the warming of your own home to make the pandemic as manageable as possible.
To speak more to the issue making things more comfortable: pronouns. If someone has a preferred one, and they tell you, all you have to do is use it in the situations where it’s appropriate. Too long of an apology, and you’ve made the awkwardness of the moment about yourself, and no apology at all, and the person you’re addressing may be on edge to see if you will respect them in the future. Generally, people understand the swap from a masculine pronoun to a feminine pronoun. But a neutral pronoun?
At times in our education, we may have been told a neutral pronoun should only be used for plural cases. In English, this isn’t so. The singular they is not so modern an invention, and in all truth, easy to use. As Vox reporter Anna North correctly points out in her article, “The past, present, and future of the singular ‘they’”, “Many nonbinary people, who don’t identify as male or female, have been using the pronouns ‘they’ and ‘them’ for years.” It also is especially polite, as it does away with any guessing first try.
“They’re my best friend.”, “Their home is totally cozy and full of hygge.”, “My life is so much better with them in it.”, and so on. A simple rule thumb is to use they as you would he or she, whenever you’re unsure of someone’s pronouns, or when you’re searching for an ‘anyone’ type of word, then you’re golden. Everything gets easier with practice, words, and concepts old and new.
“New Dictionary Words.” Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster, Jan. 2021,
North, Anna. “The Past, Present, and Future of the Singular ‘They.’” Vox, Vox, 13
Dec. 2019, www.vox.com/2019/12/13/21011537/they-merriam-webster-